A service trip exposed the commonalities, the differences, and how we could all do better.
Hair products and lip gloss were a pretty big deal way back when I was about 13.
Hair products and lip gloss were a pretty big deal when my daughter and her friends were about 13, too.
Oh, the luxury of being a middle-class teenage girl in the United States.
There are certain universalities to this age.
Not having a uniform when everyone else at school does can sting. Being left out of a secret or being teased because you have cheap shoes can hurt. Girls around the globe want to feel loved and accepted.
There are other universalities. Too many children all over the world struggle to eat each day. Millions don’t have a bed. Survival overrides the desire for glitter eyeliner.
These things happen in the United States, too.
But there are certain cultural differences in Uganda that bring a unique urgency to girl empowerment and International Women’s Day.
Children — particularly the most vulnerable children — are not valued in that culture in the same way they are in the States.
Decades of war mean that many children in the north were born of rape. It also means that fathers are in short supply. That two generations don’t have a norm of stability. They’ve been raised with a survival mentality.
Throughout the country, AIDS, malaria and malnutrition mean parents disappear, die young. Children are raised by a single parent, by aunties or grandies. And stepchildren here might as well be Cinderella without the ball and the happy ending.
Domestic abuse is prevalent. Women are often assessed as an assembly of physical parts or an object for a man’s pleasure. A girl might be groped by the driver on the way to school.
Children don’t make eye contact. It’s a sign of respect, of knowing their place here. Women in particular.
And education is a luxury. When you don’t have anything to eat, how do you pay for pencils and paper? Government school is not free; there is a long list of fees and requirements. If you don’t meet them, you’re often turned away.
But girl empowerment trips by nonprofits such as Fields of Dreams Uganda, a U.S.-based organization focusing exclusively on children in Uganda, do something to address some of these fundamental differences.
During the trip in which I participated, we delivered to area schools reusable cloth sanitary pads, plus soap and buckets for washing them and little plastic bags in which to discreetly carry home the used ones. But we didn’t just unload boxes and leave.
When we arrived at a school, it was a celebration. The students performed special songs and dances. Dignitaries were in attendance. There were speeches and special lunches.
And after that, the boys and younger children were dismissed. It was clear that something special was about to happen, and that it was for the young women of the school.
We began with a short, interactive presentation to encourage confidence, empowerment, and thoughts of dreams, loves and promises.
Next, we passed out simple books that explain the menstrual process and the anatomy of a girl’s body. We walked through the what’s and how’s and why’s of the physical process and how to manage it with the kit.
Then, we distributed the kit. But we didn’t just hand it out. There was a full-blown ceremony, with rubber bracelets and string bags. The girls moved down the line in a procession, with a different member of our visiting team giving them an item: a hanger with clips from which they can hang their pads to dry; a bucket in which to wash their pads; three pairs of new underwear; a package of pads; and a year’s worth of soap bars that they can use to wash the pads. We included a few words of encouragement at each step.
After the girls came through the line, the teachers followed, because they face the same challenges. Even the male teachers joined the procession, so that they could bring the kit home to their wives.
And the little ones often looked on with some mixture of excitement, curiosity and envy. It’s not often that anyone there gets gifts.
Perhaps best of all, a large part of the presentation was delivered by men. The male staff and volunteers took their place in the lineup. This is not a hidden hassle to be whispered about behind closed doors, but an entire community honoring young women.
Imagine if ten people flew from France to have that girl talk with you, and the whole school shut down to honor the celebration, and the senior men of the visiting organization told you that you were strong, unique, beautiful, trustworthy and authentic.
In fact, why don’t we do that in the United States?
I had the honor of celebrating International Women’s Day at El Bethel Junior School in Uganda two years ago with Fields of Dreams Uganda.
The female — yes, female — leader of El Bethel School spoke highly of the young women who have graduated from the school. She invited them back from secondary school for the day’s celebration:
“Their future belongs to them,” she said.
“They have dreamed very well, and they believe in themselves.”
The pastor followed with words from the song that the children sang earlier, speaking of the girls sitting on the concrete slab: “We are the future of our nation. We are the stars of the world,” he encouraged them.
It was a beautiful thing, to be in Uganda for International Women’s Day, where there is a growing appreciation for strong women. By many there, they are seen as beautiful rather than a threat to men.
With our pervasive wealth in the United States (and by world standards, something like 99 percent of us would be considered wealthy), most teenagers aren’t worried about what to do at that time of the month, whether they’ll be able to attend school that week or fall behind; whether they will suddenly be viewed as marriage material because they’ve reached that age.
Girl empowerment trips and organizations that supply education along with practical supplies offer that same opportunity to the young women of Uganda, so that instead they might have the capacity and freedom to think about other things. Some of those things might even include hair products or lip gloss, if they can go on to secondary school and perhaps even university.
And with hope, those things will also include ways to compassionately, uniquely, beautifully and authentically one day lift up their country and the world.
Happy International Women’s Day.